Wednesday 11 June 2014

Not available in Oxfordshire 1st-6th June 2014

A long planned four day trip to the Scottish islands of Mull and Iona followed by two days in the Cairngorms came to fruition early on a sunny Sunday morning when Andy and Terry collected me from my home in Kingham. Cramming myself and all the paraphernalia required for an extended birding trip onto the back seat of Andy's two door car we set off for the North.

All was going well until news came through of a Short toed Eagle, a mega if ever there was one, perched in a tree in Dorset. Everyone was going to see it. Well almost everyone. We were going the wrong way but there was nothing we could do or more pertinently I could do. The others were not too bothered. I had just got over this shock to my system when Badger sent a picture of said eagle and more angst than is healthy consumed me. The miles wound on and much ribaldry ensued about the STE, mainly aimed at me. Still it kept us amused and in the end even I was reconciled to missing out.

The weather took a turn for the worse after Glasgow and the predicted rain arrived as we wound our way past Loch Lomond, through the glens and the impressive mountainous terrain towards Oban. Arriving earlier than expected we managed to get onto an earlier ferry to Mull and in short time we were on the Caledonian Macbrayne ship and ready to sail. I love these ferries, they are the lifeline for inter island communication and connecting the islands to the mainland and although making huge losses are subsidised by the Scottish Government as they recognise how vital they are. As a consequence of the lack of money the ships are slightly dated, a bit shoddy and have a somewhat decadent air about them whilst for no apparent reason still managing to create an aura of adventure and excitement as they set sail, usually through majestic scenery, to those distant blurred and looming island shapes far out across the sea. Perhaps it is the lack of  de-humanising security checks and endless waiting that is the norm for airports these days or the fact one can freely move about the ship that makes this form of travel feel positively civilised

Leaving Oban
We arrived at Craignure on Mull thirty minutes after leaving Oban, not seeing much on the sea apart from an occasional Black Guillemot and Common Guillemots. We saw our one and only Ring Ouzel, a female, as we headed for our accommodation and after checking in at our very comfortable self catering hostel, located conveniently between Craignure and Tobermory, we set off in search of birds. This met with abject failure due to the weather and not knowing really where to go. We were also  very tired after a long journey but not prepared to admit it. Someone who shall be nameless managed to morph a distant perched Woodpigeon into an eagle but it had been a long day. After wandering about somewhat aimlessly the weather took a turn for the worse and we just about made it back to the car before the rain arrived in earnest. So there was only one thing to do. Get something to eat.

Frankly there is not too much choice in Tobermory so we opted for The Galleon Grill just off Tobermory High Street, ordering gourmet burgers all round accompanied by a nice bottle of Merlot and with indecent haste got stuck into the desserts afterwards. Gastronomically replete we headed for the hostel and bed. Three of us in one room was just about manageable and soon we were asleep and anticipating our first full day of birding on Mull

Tobermory Bay

I dislike Monday. Any Monday. This Monday it was raining and low cloud hung across the hills. My mood worsened considerably when I learnt that a Spectacled Warbler, the eighth for the UK had been found in Norfolk. Apparently it was a male, singing and holding territory, even building a nest, all of which gave me some hope it would hang on long enough for me to go and see it after we returned from Scotland. It's the same every year, a mega rarity always turns up at the end of May or early June. In the morning we headed for Loch na Keal, first of all driving up the north side and stopping every so often to scope the loch. Summer plumaged Great Northern Divers and a pair of Red throated Divers got us off to a good start. Common Sandpipers were everywhere, teetering and bobbing on the rocks by the loch shore. Cuckoos called from the mountainside, invisible somewhere inside the low cloud creeping down the mountainside or maybe even above it. Northern Wheatears flitted around the rocks on the shore or flew across the road and a creche of fifteen Shelduck plus parents snaked their way towards the sea.

Northern Wheatear c Andy
Stands of Yellow Iris made splashes of bright colour along the roadside virtually everywhere we went especially by the seashore.

Hooded Crows caused some excitement for Terry and Andy and  led to some discussion as to whether they are officially a species. I had always assumed they were a sub species of Carrion Crow but Andy checked with the BOU website and they are now a species in their own right. Handy, as this meant another new UK species for me!

Hooded Crow c Andy
We had our first encounter with the dreaded midges, which are not to be deterred by rain and due to lack of wind took the opportunity to venture forth. They do not seem to favour me with their unwelcome attentions but Andy being so much younger is obviously more tender and they homed in on him with a vengeance. A passing motorist stopped and asked us had we seen any eagles. Terry being a former shop steward did the talking for us. Really what the motorist wanted to say was that he had seen some eagles, only it was yesterday, but he gave Terry some valuable information about a pair of White tailed Eagles  that could be seen from the other, southern side of the loch. The rain increased. There was now no chance of seeing any eagles so we moved on and scoped another area of the loch from the shore. Andy promptly confounded our supposition about weather and eagles and found a distant White tailed Eagle flying across the loch. Terry and Andy got very excited and leapt from the car as this was a lifer for both of them. By the time I had extricated myself from the back seat of the two door car, no easy task with a damaged and still painful shoulder, the eagle was disappearing into the murk. Never mind we had seen our first eagle but for me it was strangely unsatisfactory. I really was not in holiday mode yet and the weather was certainly not helping

Andy for some unknown reason was now obsessing about Fulmars and a mysterious cave somewhere around the mythical next bend in the road which never seemed to come and where loads of seabirds could be seen, but fortunately a dose of common sense broke out and we gave up seeking Fulmar nirvana and retraced our steps, deciding instead on the eagle spot the friendly motorist had informed us about. Well you never know something might happen. We found a layby on the southern shore with several other cars parked, all obviously waiting for something, so reasoned this must be the spot, which was correct. Speaking to a very talkative lady nearby I learnt that this was also a good place for Otters and there was a White tailed Eagle nest hidden from view in a belt of pines up on the hillside facing us. Just at that moment Andy spotted a White tailed Eagle flying out of the pines and away along the hillside. This was more like it and no longer cocooned in the car I got my first close and relatively extended views of this magnificent eagle, the fourth largest in the world. Too soon it was gone but after a short wait another eagle or the same one as before returned carrying a lamb in its talons. No, not a live one but one that by the look of it had been dead for some time. Nice. The eagle pitched into a pine in full view clutching the lamb in its huge talons and then proceeded to tear chunks off it with an unbelievably big yellow beak. It looked incongruous as it also had a large plastic tag attached to its wing. Constantly harassed by a pair of Hooded Crows which were going into precipitous dives above it the eagle just ducked its head and carried on tearing what remained of the lamb to pieces. An all action scene for which we were eternally grateful. This completed our morning which by a fortuitous encounter with a helpful stranger had ended in minor triumph.

For afternoon entertainment we were booked on potentially the highlight of the entire trip which was a venture out to sea with Mull Charters - where we were all going to get the picture of a lifetime of a White tailed Eagle. That was the theory but the weather looked pretty grim. We had already been contacted by Mull Charters to be advised that the boat would sail so there were no worries on that score but rain would definitely make things unpleasant and difficult for photography. The meeting place for the boat was at a location called Ulva Ferry a few miles further up the road we were already on. I suppose in good weather Ulva Ferry would be a pretty little place but today with lowering cloud and regular rain showers it was depressing and grey in a way only Scotland seems capable of conjuring up.

Ulva Ferry
We stood huddled up in waterproofs amongst discarded lobster pots and other seafaring dross waiting for the boat to arrive. Doubt set in that we were in the right place but a quick phone call reassured us. Finally the boat arrived disgorging a dozen smiling souls enthusing about what a fantastic time they just had with the eagles. Now it was our turn and we boarded the boat to receive a brief talk about safety from Martin the jovial skipper, before putting out onto a grey sullen sea. Our fellow passengers ranged from just normal tourists to a professional wildlife photographer from Singapore. I nervously fiddled with my camera and its settings. Are they the right ones? Is the battery fully charged? What if this, what if that. It is just anxiety and anticipation making me feel this way. Calm down. The boat is very small. Will I get a clear shot? Where should I stand and where will the eagle come down, on the port or starboard side? Possibly even at the back? The anxieties and excitement built up as we progressed out to sea. There would only be the merest of seconds to get the shot. The light and conditions were awful for photography and I had no idea what to expect other than an eagle would swoop down and seize a fish and be gone in seconds. We sailed on, heading for a high cliffside on the Ross of Mull. I practiced taking flight shots of the various large gulls and a lone Kittiwake that followed the boat waiting for scraps of bread to be thrown onto the sea by Martin.

 Andy and Terry on the way out to the White tailed Eagles

Anticipation of eagle action at the back of the boat
Martin the skipper - top bloke
Greater Black backed Gulls squabbling over bread
After about half an hour we approached the cliffside, stopping some way off, and although I could not at first see them, I was assured there were two White tailed Eagles sat there on the cliffside. Then I saw one of the eagles heading towards us. Brown with huge wings held out on a flat level plain. At first it appeared small over the expanse of sea but as the distance decreased and it approached it got ever larger and gaining height circled above us. I was not expecting this. In Africa in a similar situation but with African Fish Eagles I was used to watching the eagle coming straight in and seizing the fish from the water, then making off with it. Now I was confronted, not without some pleasure I have to say, with an eagle, the fourth largest in the world, circling our boat and giving an awesome array of views and flying without showing any apparent urgency about grabbing the fish from the sea's surface. This was a bird of superlatives. Impressive seen at a distance but now close to us the size, bulk and sheer presence of the eagle were overwhelming. It engendered in me an almost primal feeling of long lost but not quite subjugated fears. The dark corners of the ancestral mind suddenly stirred. This was the bird of myth and legend, known to our ancestors, now very much alive and before us.

Everything about it was on a colossal scale. The wings massive, broad and made to look even bigger by the short all white tail. Close up its pale feathered head and neck were like a shroud over the rest of the brown plumage and a cruel yellow eye stared out at us. Pitiless. Close as this the yellow bill was almost obscene in its size and bulk. Round and yet round again the eagle flew, higher then lower, constantly assessing the situation. After about five or ten minutes it flew a little further away from the boat and then came towards the boat with obvious purpose in a steep dive, powerful sulphur yellow legs dangling from brown feathered thighs and huge wings angled to brake its descent. The outer primaries splayed, separated like ribbons flickering in the wind as it descended. I just fired away with the camera, all my good intentions about camera settings gone in the immediacy of the moment. There was no time to change settings. No time to think. This was it, now or never. A splash, a grab with its talons and still clicking away with the camera I watched through the lens as this monstrous bird headed away back to the distant cliff with the fish hanging from its talons. It was done in seconds. I got my picture

White tailed Eagle
We relaxed on the boat after the eagle had departed, chatting to Martin and our fellow passengers but there was more to come. Greater Black backed Gulls and Herring Gulls squabbled for food after the eagle had gone. A lone Kittiwake so delicate and petite compared to its larger cousins came very close to the boat. A complimentary cup of tea or coffee and a ginger biscuit were most welcome, then it was time for more eagle action. Twice more we were treated to the eagle snatching a fish from the sea, however the first time proved to be the best for photography. The other times the angle was too steep or the eagle was too close to the boat but still who can complain when we were treated to such a spectacular afternoon. Miraculously the rain had stopped through the entirety of the eagle's display but now it set in with a vengeance on our way back to Ulva Ferry. I hunkered down in my waterproofs.
Yours truly riding out a rainstorm
Cold and wet but warm inside with a glow of triumph at having seen and photographed the White Tailed Eagles of Mull.

The Barn Door c Terry

Tonight I would seal the day with an Old Pulteney or two at Macgochan's in Tobermory in the company of Andy and Terry


Up until now the weather had been unfavourable with frequent rain and low cloud. Depressing and cold it had lowered my spirits but optimism sprang from our frequent consultation of various weather reports which seemed to change hourly as far as the BBC were concerned, so we were never quite sure what was going to happen. Personally I put more faith in the xc weather web site which seemed to be much more accurate. This morning was meant to bring sunshine with the occasional shower but on waking there was still cloud on the mountain tops and little sign of sun which was a shame as we intended to drive across Mull, via Glen Mhor to look for Golden Eagles, then onwards to Iona. In the end we decided to get to Iona in the late morning as the forecast was better for the afternoon.

The morning was still and damp as we stopped in nearby Salen for some provisions. Cheese nibbles 'twa for a poond' were a welcome bargain at the tiny petrol station come stores in Salen. Not so welcome were the hordes of midges descending on anything that moved. Conditions were ideal for them with no wind and damp in the air. They were hatching in their millions. The kids waiting for the school bus were highly active, jumping about swiping away the little beasties and we had to do the same entering the store.

Ruined boats at Salen
Diving back into the car we shut the doors on them but inevitably some got inside and the next thirty minutes provided some entertainment as we despatched the blighters. The drive to and through Glen Mhor is truly spectacular with the single track road winding through rugged mountains and vast tracks of moorland. We stopped at a well known elevated spot overlooking two small lochans to look for eagles soaring over the tops of the surrounding mountains but much of the tops were obscured by cloud. Nevertheless we persisted but only found some Red Deer high on the mountainside. In fact there were virtually no birds apart from the ubiquitous Hooded Crows. An occasional Meadow Pipit peeped from the moorland grass and then an unfamiliar distant song aroused my curiosity. It was not a wheatear and I thought it might be a Whinchat. We traversed some boggy moorland and indeed it was a male Whinchat singing from atop some bracken. Our first of the trip.

Glen Mhor viewpoint but no eagles due to low cloud
Disappointed with our lack of success looking for eagles in this favoured spot we decided to head for Fionnophort earlier than planned where we could catch the ferry to Iona. The weather at the same time started to improve and soon we were driving in full sunshine and Mull became a much better place.The lochs and sea shone blue in the sun and the fresh green vegetation seemed to regain a vigour that had been dulled by the rain. Eiders swam in the seaweed by the receding tide and Oystercatchers bickered amongst themselves, flashing black and white as they flew across the blue waters. We had an hour to wait in Fionnophort for the ferry to sail so sat on the short turf, ate some lunch and watched a Rock Pipit feeding amongst the boulders. Terry and I went for a stroll along a small and beautiful white sand beach, the sea lapped quietly and a pair of Common Gulls dozed in the sun.

Rock Pipit c Terry
Iona has strong memories for me. Almost forty years ago my now wife was my girlfriend, working in her student holidays at the Argyll Hotel on Iona. I visited her and proposed to her on this most romantic of islands.This was the first time I had been back. Like then the weather was now glorious and everything was at its best and my spirits soared. Iona is a very special place. Cars are banned except for the few residents so there is a gentle tranquillity and benign calm to the place. Of course the island is dominated by the presence of the world famous Iona Abbey, a place of pilgrimage and visited by people from all over the world.

The Argyll Hotel

Iona Abbey
Our visit was more prosaic though, as we were in search of Corncrakes. The ten minute crossing deposited us on the ferry slipway and we walked up the lane to the nearby fields.We could hear the Corncrakes almost immediately. Their rasping calls came from a large meadow to our left. There must have been four or five intermittently issuing their strange brittle rasp. Terry had never seen one and at first it seemed he never would. They were invisible amongst the swaying plantains, meadow grasses and wildflowers. We could hear them alright but even when calling from a  location obviously close to us we just could not find them. We scanned back and fore looking for that little head poking up amongst the tops of the low vegetation but met with spectacular failure. Not one to be defeated I carried on scanning and my binoculars settled on something different to the grasses, buttercups and plantains. It was there for just a second before it ducked down. A reptilian head with a dark eye and distinct pink base to its bill. A Corncrake. I alerted the others and now knowing the approximate location of a Corncrake amongst the sea of swaying grasses we had a much better chance of finding it again. Andy got onto it as it called again, throwing its head up and back with its bill open to issue that strange monotonous call. Only the head and sometimes part of the body was visible as they skulked in the grasses.Terry still had not seen it so we continued and eventually Andy got one in the scope which Terry saw and then he found his own. A lifer. 

With Terry's success finally achieved we left this location and wandered towards the Abbey where we found another Corncrake slightly more obliging and giving all of us restricted but acceptable views. We walked on towards the distant beach at the west end of the island. Corncrakes called from random fields with at least three calling from the surrounds of a field full of sweet smelling Common Daisies. The perfumed air, the perfect weather and spectacular scenery was uplifting and I felt the magic of Iona once more permeating my inner being. Our final view of a Corncrake was of one calling from the boundary of the daisy field and then we turned back along the road towards the ferry. 'Cream Tea anyone?' I enquired. I did not need to ask a second time and soon we were in the garden of the estimable Columba Hotel partaking of one of the finest cream teas it has been my pleasure to consume. The hotel is now owned by the islanders and the service is exceptional, employing locals and everything from the scones to the cream and jam is home made.Washed down with a pot of Earl Grey tea in a sun filled garden looking out onto an impossibly azure blue sea this was heaven indeed and again the magic of Iona gently entered my spirit.

A hard days birding deserves a reward. The cream tea to end all cream teas
l-r Terry, yours truly and Andy
Soon it was time to go and we got back onto the ferry and made the long drive across Mull to Tobermory.

The Iona Ferry
We stopped to admire an amazing Highland Cow, well Bull actually, on the road back to Tobermory. He was not overly pleased to see us and made it plain, by a toss of his formidable horns, we should be on our way.

Don't mess with me
It was no surprise that we finished the day in Macgochan's at Tobermory with a large meal and a few bevvies even though I was still stuffed with scones and cream


I know I go on about the weather but it has such an influence on what you can or cannot do when birding on Mull that it is inevitable that it takes on an importance all of its own. Today we were blessed with yet another rain free day, still and calm with some sunshine. Every day we were on the road by around eight, having a quick breakfast in the hostel's communal dining room and usually the first to leave the hostel. We decided to go back to the White tailed Eagle site on the south shore of Loch na Keal.  First to arrive at the layby we had a look for Otters but there was no luck. Andy found two very distant Black throated Divers far out on the loch and Terry chased around after an energetic Sedge Warbler singing heartily from some bracken and iris, while I watched Common Sandpipers courting and mating on the dry stone walls surrounding the fields by the loch shore. Andy and Terry bored with waiting for the eagles set off on foot down the road to look for other birds. I decided to stay put.

Another couple of cars joined me and I overheard a lady from one of them talking to another person about a Golden Eagle eyrie where you could stand in a layby and watch the eagles coming to the eyrie. She was going on Mull Charters White tailed Eagle sea safari later that morning and we got chatting. I enquired about the Golden Eagle site and she turned and pointed across the loch to the opposite side and told me the eyrie was exactly opposite on the north side from where we were currently standing. She even pointed out the exact rock formation on which the eyrie was placed! With these specific instructions I waited eagerly for Andy and Terry to return and suggested we go there as there was little sign of any White tailed Eagle activity at our current location. They did not take much persuading.

Fifteen minutes later we were round the head of the loch and joined a few other birders in the layby below the eyrie. A very confiding male Chaffinch hopped around us looking for scraps.

The Golden Eagle layby
Confiding male Chaffinch
We had only just set up our scopes when a Golden Eagle flew below the skyline and perched on a tree by the eyrie. I could hardly believe it. Expecting a long wait we had connected almost immediately with this most magnificent and iconic of eagles. It did not remain in the tree long before sweeping back along the mountainside and soaring up into the sky. Such a different profile to the White tailed Eagle. Much more evenly proportioned with thinner wings and longer tail. No 'barn door' description could be applied to this elegant giant. It soared and glided behind the mountain ridge and out of sight but returned into view at regular intervals before perching on the skyline.What a spectacular result and I reflected on the luck we had with our chance encounters both with the lady in the layby earlier this morning and the passing motorist on Monday.

The eagle left its elevated position and glided down along the mountainside to perch in full view in a tree near to the eyrie where it spent a long time preening. Although distant we could clearly see in the scope its golden head and nape.The yellow cere and feet stood out and also surprisingly striking were the pale almost white coverts forming a distinct pale band across the upper surface of the wing. It flapped its huge wings and we saw the white flash on the undersides and the white base to the undertail as it attempted to balance on a branch far too small for it. For half an hour it preened and messed around in the tree and then seizing some fresh green leaves it flew to the eyrie and we could just see its head as it perched on the virtually totally obscured nest. It did not stop long and returned to another nearby tree to repeat the process ,before finally perching almost invisibly on yet another tree high on the mountainside. We had watched it almost continuously for over an hour agreeing that this was the most comprehensive view all of us had ever had of a Golden Eagle.It will certainly live long in my memory. I turned to look back across the loch to where we had been earlier and found the two White tailed Eagles perched in the pines. Later the eagle sea safari came up the loch and one of the White tailed Eagles flew out and circled the boat before diving down to snatch the fish thrown for it.

I must also recount a very funny incident that occurred while we were looking at the Golden Eagle. A nameless gentleman rolled up in his car and proceeded to look at the eagle through undoubtedly the largest pair of binoculars I have ever seen. They were not just big they were immense. Indeed the gent  in question was almost invisible behind them and had to rest his arms on the car door to accommodate the weight of this mother of all binoculars. In the end he was attempting to attach the binoculars to an ancient tripod which took up another ten minutes whilst the rest of us watched the eagle. I lost it completely and could not stop laughing. This set off Andy and Terry and indeed everyone else around us was now laughing. To compound matters Terry confessed to knowing the person who believe it or not was from Oxford and spends a lot of time on Otmoor. Terry went over to speak to him or at least try, as the man was also very deaf. Really I think Terry just wanted to have a go with the binoculars. Even now as I write this I am starting to get the giggles.

Is it a plane? Is it a bird? I can see Mars!
Terry trying out the Zeiss Zonkers. To infinity and beyond!
We went back to Tobermory after watching the eagle as Andy wanted to purchase a bottle of whisky from the Tobermory distillery which was conveniently located just at the beginning of the sea front. 

Tobermory Distillery
I was also on a mission to get some Tobermory chocolate to bring home for my wife. This done our next stop was Loch Frisa and a pleasant walk along the loch side just generally birding.

The track alongside Loch Frisa
As usual we had the place to ourselves and found a pair of European Stonechats, Common Whitethroats, Willow Warblers and another Whinchat on the moorland. Orchids and unidentified moths provided some entertainment and finally after walking a few miles we sat high above the loch side and just enjoyed the peace and tranquillity of the place. I was tired and the warmth of the sun made me drowsy until Andy alerted us to the presence of a White tailed Eagle flying along the far shore and then pitching into one of the pines. It did not remain perched long before continuing flying along the loch past us and over the far hills. Perish the thought but I was almost becoming blase about White tailed Eagles. We walked back to the car and headed for our last stop - Calgary Bay. This was well worth the effort not so much for the birds but just for the sheer beauty of the place which was virtually unspoilt. A huge sweep of deserted white sand beach, litter free, a small car park devoid of the usual seaside dross and surrounding, verdant tree covered hills greeted us. Two Eider shepherded their four young by the rocks and a Cuckoo called constantly from the hillside. The bay sheltered a diver which at first, in the sun, appeared to be a Great Northern but on getting closer and seeing some plumage detail turned out to be a superb summer plumaged Black throated Diver, surely the most beautiful and elegant of its genus when in its full breeding finery. As we drove away from the beach I spotted a huge Red Deer stag in the trees just by the road. 'Stop, stop Andy, there is a stag, we have just passed it'. We reversed and there it was a huge stag standing bold and upright. It was a full size model made of wood. Doh!

This was our last night on Mull so we made the best of a beautiful evening and visited Macgochan's yet again where another three course meal went the way of all things ably assisted by one or two Tobermory malt whiskies. It was to be an early start tomorrow for the first ferry at 0645


It was raining again and we lined up with a handful of other cars at an unfeasibly early hour on the dockside at Craignure to await boarding the ferry. Rock Doves swooped under the pier and a Black Guillemot perched on the stern of the ferry. Soon we were on the, not unsurprisingly, almost empty ferry and sailing for Oban. We were all soon asleep or semi comatose in the lounge but as we passed a promontory with an isolated lighthouse at the tip I involuntarily scanned it with my bins and a brown blob perched on the highest part of the small green promontory proved to be yet another White tailed Eagle. My seventh of the trip. 'Wake up Terry, there is another eagle'.We jumped out of our seats and onto the outer deck and watched our last eagle becoming a distant blur but not before it took off and sailed majestically behind some hills. Andy had other priorities and by the time he emerged from the toilet it was too late.

Oban is not the greatest town to visit at any time of year in my opinion and certainly not on a wet weekday morning in June. I counted around ten Black Guillemots in the harbour and really that was it as we drove out of town to our next destination which was Newtonmore in the Highlands. A long tedious drive in the rain ensued with Crested Tit now the much desired target species for both Andy and Terry who had both never seen one.We arrived in Newtonmore and first availed ourselves of a full Scottish Breakfast to get us going both literally and figuratively. It was huge with lashings of toast. Just what we needed having missed out on the ferry to Oban

Fortified we made our way to Loch Garten RSPB Reserve in search of the elusive Crested Tits. We approached the entrance to the reserve and I finally forgave the RSPB for wasting all that money on culling Ruddy Ducks and rejoined them. 

Signing up to the RSPB
Forty pounds lighter in the wallet I made my way up the track to the Visitor Centre and immediately wondered why I had joined. The Visitor Centre was full of high tech video links and assorted techno paraphernalia showing one very soggy Osprey trying to shield its chicks from the unrelenting rain. The images were brilliant but this is not my kind of birding nor are the overpriced badges, clothing and general birding accessories that were available in the adjoining shop. I wandered outside and admired the lovely male Siskins coming down to feed on the peanuts provided. Almost like canaries so bright were they.

Male Siskins
The rain could not get at me under the pines. Chaffinches were everywhere. Their song and calls so very different to the ones in our Oxfordshire garden, as apparently just like us they have dialects. No Crested Tits though but a half mile walk through the damp Scots Pines to nearby Loch Mallachie put us on the track round the loch. Quite a few years ago I had seen them here and retraced my steps. At first it was dire with just Coal Tits high in the Scots Pines. A fork in the track and I remembered to take the right fork. By now Andy and Terry were some way behind, attracted by the presence of a Common Redstart. I rounded a bend and off to my left two shapes flitted amongst the pines. Up with the bins and there were two Crested Tits. I tried to call the others but had no signal on my phone. As a last resort I bellowed 'Andy, Andy' my voice echoing  loudly through the wood. The tits thankfully took no notice and Andy and Terry duly appeared and got their lifer. We watched the tits for some time and it was apparent they were on territory as I saw the female being fed by the male and soliciting him with quivering wings.They were highly active and hard to follow in the pine branches but usually their distinctive call gave away their location and allowed us to get onto them. A small brown shape flitted across the path and landed with its back to us on a twig. It flew again and we were all delighted to see it was a Spotted Flycatcher. Another song came from high at the top of a pine and we added a fine male Common Redstart to our list and shortly after saw the female. Satisfied with our views of the tits we walked the circular path coming across a huge Wood Ant nest that was swarming with ants at its top.

Wood Ant nest
Further on we surprised a female Goldeneye on a small lochan with six young, their face pattern making them look like miniature Smew and already showing they were accomplished divers. A distinctive song descended from the top of a pine. A Tree Pipit. We ambled back to the Visitor Centre so Andy could go into dude mode and buy a Crested Tit badge. Honestly! On the way Terry found another Spotted Flycatcher which flew off before he could take its picture.The reserve warden stopped in his car as we walked down the road and enquired about our success with the Crested Tits and we told him where we had seen them so he could tell other visitors.

The track through the woods to Loch Mallachie
Crested Tit c Andy
Then it was back in the car and a short trip up the road to Nethy Bridge to look for Dippers and Grey Wagtails. The River Spey runs through the town and traditionally you look for the birds from the road bridge over the river. However the river was in spate due to the rain so we took the path alongside the river and a quarter mile upriver came to some rocks rising above the swirling, peaty brown waters. There was a Dipper resting on the largest rock, its white eyelids flicking every so often in its dark brown head. We added Grey Wagtail in short time when we found a juvenile feeding in a back garden on the other side of the river as we walked back to the car.

Dipper c Terry
Still with time on our hands I suggested we could now go and look for Red Grouse on Dava Moor some fifteen miles north. Neither Terry or Andy had seen Red Grouse so there was little argument about my suggestion. Dava Moor is one of my favourite places, bleak, empty and vast, with the atmospheric Lochindorb in its centre and a minor road running first through the centre of this heavily keepered huge grouse moor and then alongside the loch. In Scotland there is no restriction on where you can walk so I instructed Andy to stop in one of the laybys and I would go and try to put up some grouse. Andy and Terry stood by the road as I descended into the moorland and I had only gone a few feet when  half a dozen grouse chicks, already capable of limited flight, scattered from my feet and their parents rose from the heather and went into full distraction display. A spectacular and instant result. Both Andy and Terry got their pictures and a lifer into the bargain. There was other wildlife on the moor as well with a scattered  colony of Common Gulls nesting in the heather and a Mountain Hare briefly showed itself on the skyline. A Roe Deer with its buff hindquarters bouncing up and down bounded away over the heather and other Red Grouse held forth with  their harsh 'go back go back' calls. It was sad to think that these birds would soon be running the gauntlet of rich people taking pleasure in killing them for so called enjoyment. It also made me angry but that is for another time and place.We proceeded down the road to scope the loch but there was no sign of the Black throated Divers which breed on the loch. Common Sandpipers lived up to their name beside the loch calling anxiously as they ran along the shore.

Common Sandpiper
A young Curlew, still flightless, wandered along the shoreline while its anxious parent flew around it and a pair of Common Snipe rocketed through the airspace above us.

Curlew chick
Andy noticed another Red Grouse poking its head up from the heather and Terry and myself went on foot to investigate and found another pair with young. The parent birds again went into a distraction display or at least the male did whilst the more soberly coloured female slunk away, crouching through the heather and leading the young to safety.

Male Red Grouse
We carried on beside the loch but there was not much else to see apart from yet another grouse family very close to the road allowing us to get somewhat restricted pictures of both the young and the female.

Female Red Grouse
Red grouse juvenile
Content, we headed back to Newtonmore and our hostel for the next two nights. If the one on Mull was cosy this was positively intimate but we were only in it for two nights so it was not a hardship and just over the road was an excellent pub called the Glen Hotel.

We celebrated with another three course meal and sampled the whiskies on offer. I tried Dalmore this time which was excellent.


Our last day. We planned to visit Cairn Gorm this morning. The forecast sun was a no show and low cloud obscured the mountain tops so we changed our itinerary in the hope that the weather would improve, making Cairn Gorm a more viable proposition in the early afternoon. The warden at Loch Garten had suggested Loch an Eilein (Loch of the Island) as a good place to try for Wood Warblers so we went there. The habitat looked right but we could not find or hear any Wood Warblers. Disappointment for Andy for whom it would have been a lifer

This area is part of the huge Rothiemurcus Estate and Loch an Eilein is allegedly the third most beautiful place in Scotland. It certainly is a nice place and the ruined castle on its own little island certainly adds to the atmosphere. This castle is also infamous as the location in May 1851 where the notorious egger Lewis Dunbar swam out at three in the morning in a snowstorm to steal the Ospreys eggs from the eyrie on the castle. By 1916 Ospreys were extinct in Scotland and only returned in 1955 and not to Loch an Eilein but to Loch Garten.

The ruined castle on Loch an Eilein
There is a two mile track around the loch which we took. Most notable were the sheer numbers of Spotted Flycatchers.We must have found at least four or five pairs. A pair of Goldcrests, fearless in their quest for food to take to their young, unwittingly showed us their nest as they visited it to feed their brood, the nest being slung under one of the pine fronds above our heads. We stopped opposite the ruined castle on its island and took some 'atmospheric' photos. Just to our left in a crack in a pine trunk about four feet up, three almost fledged Blue Tits clamoured noisily for food. We retreated and the parent birds immediately recommenced feeding the young which were almost falling out of the nest crack.

Blue Tit at nest with young almost fledged
A pair of Common Redstarts showed themselves briefly as did a Red Squirrel but frankly the rest of the walk was a little disappointing with just a few more redstarts, a couple of Tree Pipits, a pair of Tree Creepers and a family of Goldeneye to show for our efforts.

It was now or never for Cairn Gorm and the weather had shown a slight improvement but Cairn Gorm itself was still blanketed in cloud despite glimpses of blue sky elsewhere over the surrounding hills. We drove up to the Visitor Centre, a vast and to me unattractive edifice that does nothing for the surrounding superb scenery. From here the controversial funicular railway goes up the mountainside to another Visitor Centre where there are viewing platforms but you are not allowed to leave the building and walk out  onto the track that goes up to the very top of Cairn Gorm. If you wish to do this you have to walk on the tracks from the first Visitor Centre much lower down and it takes around two hours. To me it is a great shame that all this development has happened. It takes away completely the sense of wildness and space and frankly the areas surrounding the Visitor Centres are a disgrace being more like builders yards with wood and abandoned building materials scattered randomly across the terrain. Even worse there are two ski lifts also running up the mountainside adding their quota of metal and wire to the already cluttered landscape. It could all be so different with more thought and sympathetic management.

Although the top of Cairn Gorm appeared to be blanketed in cloud the very top was apparently above the cloud and visibility was good so there was cause for optimism about our chances of seeing a Ptarmigan.

We ducked out of the long walk and opted for the funicular railway and hoped to scope the surrounding ridges for Ptarmigan from the viewing platform at the top. The ride on the railway is spectacular to give it its due but at no time could I get a feel for the wildness surrounding us, cooped up as we were in modern buildings and state of the art trains. Never mind. We walked up the stairs to the viewing platform and started scoping the hillsides. I hated every moment of it. Surrounded by other visitors just chatting about this and that and again the sense of longing to get out in the wild, away from all of this, assailed me. I was all for walking out onto the slopes but Terry wisely counselled against this.

Terry finally found a Ptarmigan miles away on a ridge. I found another and then another, all of them a long, long way away. Terry and Andy were happy as here was another lifer for both of them. I found another pair somewhat closer. Slightly better views but it would be so much better if we were out on the slopes. We could see a couple of birders on a ridge across from us who had made the long walk and were obviously looking at something but they had not noticed the immobile Ptarmigan just off to their left which we could see and in an even more comic moment a Ptarmigan's head, un-noticed by them popped up behind and scrutinised them. A pantomime 'behind you' moment if ever there was one.

Now serendipity played a part again and our luck continued. As before, a random conversation with another visiting couple resulted in them telling us they had just come back from a guided walk up Cairn Gorm and had seen not only Ptarmigan but Snow Buntings and close to at that. I said to Terry and Andy 'I wonder if we could get on one of these walks?' A bit of dithering ensued but I grabbed the metaphorical nettle and went and enquired. There was another walk, the last of the day, about to go and there was space. No hesitation as we booked our places. £6.00 each, an absolute bargain. The girl on reception even allowed us to leave our scopes in the back office so we were less encumbered and just had to cope with bins and camera. We met up with Matt our guide and a great guy and, even better, they split the group into two, so birders went with Matt and everyone else went with the other guide. There were five of us in total in our group.

We went off up the mountainside heading for the 3600 foot summit of Cairn Gorm with Matt reeling off impressive statistics about the area.

The Cairn at the top of Cairn Gorm
Well up the track we found a pair of Ptarmigan and got great views of them before carrying further on up to the top. Here we just gawped at the scenery with 30 square miles of national park around us and mountains still with snow covered areas, stretching as far as we could see.

The view from Cairn Gorm 3600ft asl
A movement in the pink coloured boulders betrayed another male Ptarmigan and this one allowed us to approach down to a few metres.

They seem, as a species, totally  untroubled about human presence and indeed this one went into some form of what I interpreted as threat display, creeping slowly and deliberately over the boulders with tail fanned and neck lowered.

Cameras went into overdrive as we recorded this beautiful bird, its plumage subtly vermiculated with grey and black and showing splashes of white on its underparts and wings. The wattle above the eye was more orange than red and white feathered legs and feet completed this vision of loveliness. Superlatives fell from our mouths. Then, a little more distant but quite distinctive, a small black and white bird hopped up onto a rock. What the ....? A male Snow Bunting in full black and white breeding plumage. Again relatively fearless he wandered around amongst the rocks and moss and eventually sat down on a large boulder and allowed us to take his picture ad infinitum. The female was more circumspect and was not nearly so showy. Much more dowdy in her grey and brown plumage but to me these were the birds of the trip. I have never seen Snow Buntings in breeding plumage and never in their breeding habitat either. A double whammy if you like.

Male Snow Bunting

Female Snow Bunting
Then as if it could not get better another chance conversation with the couple of elderly birders who came on the guided walk with us elicited the information that there was a breeding site for Slavonian Grebes just two miles up the road, called Avielochan. We had never heard of it, assuming that Loch Ruthven some thirty miles north was the only place to see breeding Slavonian Grebes. We got specific instructions and determined to go there once we were off the mountain. The walk down failed to find the other speciality of Cairn Gorm,  a Dotterel, but frankly it did not matter as we were so enthused with our luck at seeing Ptarmigan and Snow Buntings so close and well, and now chance had favoured us once again.

We bade farewell to Matt and our two birding companions and headed for Avielochan where the Slavonian Grebes were breeding. Parking the car we walked in on the minor road to the small lochan and immediately I saw a Slavonian Grebe in the reeds. It swam out showing all its finery. An absolutely beautiful array of browns, gold, orange and black. Avielochan was obviously a fishing loch and we met the owner who initially was none to happy about our presence due to unfortunate earlier incidents with other birders. Eventually he accepted us and then we could not stop him talking about the grebes and other wildlife. At one point Terry and he were almost on the point of swapping phone numbers. He told us there were up to three pairs  plus a lone bird present. I think I saw four, including one sat on a nest offshore from the far bank.We watched the grebes which again seemed very tame, diving repeatedly and on one occasion coming up with a small trout .

Slavonian Grebe with Trout c Terry

Slavonian Grebe chasing off Little Grebe
There was also a pair of Little Grebes present which the Slavonians took exception to and on one occasion a Slavonian took to flight to aggressively pursue a Little Grebe across the loch and into the reeds. The sun shone, the grebes ear tufts also shone gold in the sunlight and the sun seemed to radiate inside me. What a day on which to finish our Scots odyssey. As if to cap it all an Osprey then sailed over the lochan, hovering with legs dangling but did not catch a fish before departing.

It was all over apart from a last evening in the Glen Hotel. Dalwhinnie malt whisky was on special offer.

Birds seen

Golden Eagle/ White tailed Eagle/ Osprey/ Common Buzzard/ Common Kestrel/ Common Raven/ Carrion Crow/ Hooded Crow/ Rook/ Jackdaw/ Magpie/ Great Northern Diver/ Black throated Diver/ Red throated Diver/ Slavonian Grebe/ Little Grebe/ Mute Swan/ Greylag Goose/ Canada Goose/ Common Shelduck/ Red breasted Merganser/ Common Eider/ Mallard/ Common Goldeneye/ Greater Black backed Gull/ Lesser Black backed Gull/ Herring Gull/ Common Gull/ Black headed Gull/ Black legged Kittiwake/ Common Tern/ Northern Gannet/ Great Cormorant/ European Shag/ Black Guillemot/ Common Guillemot/ Eurasian Curlew/ Oystercatcher/ Lapwing/ Common Redshank/ Common Greenshank (h)/ Ringed Plover (h)/ Common Sandpiper/ Grey Heron/ Corncrake/ Red Grouse/ PtarmiganCommon Pheasant/ Red legged Partridge/ Woodpigeon/ Rock Dove/ Collared Dove/ Great Spotted Woodpecker/ Common Cuckoo/ Common Starling/ Eurasian Skylark/ Tree Creeper/ Mistle Thrush/ Blackbird/ Ring Ouzel/ Song Thrush/ Robin/ Northern Wheatear/ Common Redstart/  European Stonechat/ Whinchat/ Spotted Flycatcher/ House Sparrow/ Dunnock/ Greenfinch/ Common Bullfinch/ Chaffinch/ Siskin/ Linnet/ Twite/ Goldfinch/ Pied Wagtail/ Grey Wagtail/ Tree Pipit/ Meadow Pipit/ Rock Pipit/ Common Whitethroat/ Blackcap/ Sedge Warbler/ Willow Warbler/ Barn Swallow/ House Martin/ Sand Martin/ Common Swift/ Snow BuntingReed Bunting/ Great Tit/ Blue Tit/ Coal Tit/ Crested Tit/ Long  tailed Tit/ Wren/ Goldcrest [98]

Mammals seen

Red Deer/ Roe Deer/ Mountain Hare/ Red Squirrel/ Common Rabbit

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